Tuesday, February 2, 2010

What nurtures creativity?

People are always moaning that they don't have enough time to engage in their chosen creative activity. It so often happens, though, that if one does have lots of time, one does not do anything particularly meaningful with it.

I often think about my mother when I think about this. She was always interested in drawing, and when she was a young married woman, she took a painting class at the Y. She spent many happy hours in the following years making oil paintings that ranged from portraits of people in the family to still lifes to quasi-abstracts, and she used them to decorate our house. I remember standing at her elbow, watching her work with delicate dabs of pigment on an artist's palette. I grew up familiar with the scent of turpentine.

When she was in her late 40s, she went back to college to get a degree in fine arts. She dutifully completed the various projects required for her classes. These included a lot of nudes, including a cast plaster sculpture and many large canvases painted with swirls of ugly colors. The instruction seemed to revolve around abstract expressionism and all its offshoots, far removed from my mother's cheerful, ladylike portraits and still lifes.

The college experience seemed to deflect her original enthusiasm. By the time she graduated, she seemed to have lost her creative spark. She had all day, every day, to paint and draw -- my younger sister and I were both in junior high school, and my older sisters were all married -- but she did very little. When finances required more income, she went out and got a job as a secretary. In subsequent years, she actually found more inspiration to paint than she had when she was not working. My sisters asked her to paint pictures for them -- of their kids, or a big canvas to decorate a wall. It was the kind of thing she enjoyed, even though her art teachers may not have approved.

After she retired and after my father died, she took up some other artistic interests, including abstract wood sculpture and Chinese calligraphy. She pursued these regularly, but it never seemed to me that she had the same absorption she did when she was younger and more in her own world. She had become too conscious of outside standards and measurements beyond her own eyes.

This has become a cautionary tale for me, though I'm not exactly sure what the moral is. Don't go to college? Well, too late for that! Maybe it's more: don't lose sight of what is original in yourself. And then the other part: don't forget what made you want to do the thing in the first place.

My mother's daylilies

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